Tikal is a large archaeological site in the Guatemalan department of Petén. During the Classic Period it was one of the largest and most important of the Mayan cities. Today it's one of the most fascinating and enjoyable of the Mayan sites to visit, largely due to its remoteness, but also its jungle setting. Tourists still descend on it by the busload, but it's far from feeling overrun like Chichen Itza and other sites. Some of the temples are still being uncovered, and you can watch archaeologists busy at work. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
Tikal was a Maya city of great power and size, the largest of Maya cities during the "Classic Era" over 1000 years ago. Many beautiful buildings have been uncovered and many more wait to be discovered. Amongst the many Maya sites in Central America, Tikal is perhaps the most breathtaking because of the scattered impressive buildings which have been restored in an area with many more ruined buildings still enveloped by the jungle. The sight of the temples poking through the canopy is quite awesome. You can climb to the top of a few of the temples and get panoramic views from above the tree tops.
Tikal dates back as far as 400 BC, and grew into one of the largest and most powerful of the Mayan cities during the Classic Period (200-900 AD). It often clashed with other cities in the region, and was eventually defeated by Caracol in 562 AD. King Ah Cacau returned Tikal to its former glory about a century later, and it remained somewhat prosperous until the general decline of Mayan civilization set in around 900 AD.
Tikal was eventually abandoned completely, consumed by the jungle, and pretty much fell off the map. Stories of its existence started to surface in the 17th & 18th centuries, but it wasn't until the mid-1800's that expeditions were hatched to explore and map it. After a hundred years of roughing it overland by horse and foot to reach the site, a small airstrip was built in the mid-fifties. The University of Pennsylvania oversaw major excavation work at Tikal during the 1960's, and the in the late 1970's, the government of Guatemala began the work you still see being done today.
During colonial times there was a legend spoken among the indigenous peoples in Guatemala of a lost city inside the jungle where their ancestors had thrived. In 1848 this legend became a reality. Tikal was discovered, arousing curiosity around the world.
Lots of very tall trees provide shade along the wide trails as you trek from one ruin to the next. With the exception of Temple IV the elevations are small. Very steep wooden staircases lead up to the temples that are open to the public. Only minimal disabled access is provided.
Flora and fauna
If you go early enough in the morning (or better still, stay at one of the hotels in the park), it's possible to see and hear the monkeys. Spider monkeys sleep together in large groups, but during the day they disperse. It's easiest to see them when they've woken up and are beginning to move around. Howler monkeys are more often heard than seen. Coatimundis, a racoon-like mammal and brightly coloured wild "ocellated" turkeys, are everywhere. Toucans and other exotic birds contribute to the ruins' reputation for wonderful bird watching. Jaguars are rare but have been spotted on the more remote trails.
It's sunny, hot and humid, even in winter so dress lightly and bring water since you will be sweating climbing up the many steep steps of the monuments which are spread out. The trails are also muddy in a few places but there is plenty of shade under the canopy of trees. Winter nights can be cool.
The park's main gate opens at 06:00, and officially closes at 18:00. Buses and minibuses come in from all surrounding areas on a well maintained road.
Tour companies have minibuses that will pick you up from your hotel in Flores and cost GTQ100 return, (including a 4h guided tour) or GTQ70 without the guided tour. Travel time is about 75min. Minivans also leave from the bus terminal in Santa Elena starting at 06:00 with the first return trip at 12:30, but are not recommended since they cost the same but involve a long walk to the terminal (GTQ70 return without a guide).
If you come from Belize, you may be lucky enough to find a collectivo at the border going to Tikal for GTQ100 a person (travel time 100min). Alternately you can walk to the Melchor bus station which is within sight from the border and take a bus heading to Flores, get off at Ixlu, walk across the intersection, and catch another bus heading to Tikal.
Regular GTQ30 second class buses leave from the Santa Elena bus station to Tikal at 06:00, 06:30, 07:00, 08:30, 10:00, 11:30, 12:30, 13:00 and 15:00 arriving two hours later. A bus will stop in Tikal between 16:00 and 16:30 and continue onward to Uaxactún (GTQ10). The local buses do not run on Sundays. Beware about buying a round trip ticket from "Exploradores de la Cultura Maya" from the Santa Elena bus station as they may sell you a return ticket for a bus that doesn't exist.
Flores is the nearest gateway city and airport.
Adult tickets for foreigners are GTQ150 (USD20) and an additional QTQ50 for Uaxactun. Do note that if you sign up for a sunrise tour and enter the park before 06:00 the entrance fee is GTQ250, which is supposedly because the park staff are working outside of normal operating hours. Children under 12 are free. There are no ATMs in Tikal, so be sure to bring enough cash to cover expenses.
Tickets purchased after 15:00 are also valid the next day. If it's possible to arrange it so that you arrive just after 15:00, this is the best way to experience Tikal as you can see it in the late afternoon and again the following morning. (An earlier edit had said that this was not valid as of March 2011. As of July 2012, however, it is once again valid.) There are 2 separate check-points: 1) when you enter area of the national park and purchase your tickets and 2) next to the visitor's centre and the archaeological sites. As the national park is huge, Checkpoint 1 is 15-20km drive to Checkpoint 2. For those looking to take advantage of the post-15:00 entry into the national park, you should be aware that it needs to be 15:00 by time you pass Checkpoint 2 (and you can pass Checkpoint 1 earlier. E.g. if you take a bus that leaves Flores at 12:30, you would arrive at Checkpoint 1 around 14:00). Beware, if you arrive at Checkpoint 1 before 15:00, some companies' tour guides will "helpfully" offer to get you a "special deal" for next-day entry for an extra 50Q (saying that this will save you 100Q compared to having to pay 2x150Q for 2 days). If this occurs, politely decline, go to the ticket booth yourself and ask nicely for a ticket for the next day ("para manana"); this will let you enter in the afternoon and all of the following day.
Also, if you are a citizen of Guatemala you can get into Tikal for free on Sundays. This not only gives you two different times of day (and thus two different experiences) but also two chances to have good weather for photography.
You will also see a few black monkeys jumping high up among the trees.
There is a bus to Uaxactun that leaves at 16:00, the price is GTQ15 for the bus and GTQ25 for park entry, the bus returns at 06:00 the following day, well worth it if your camping at Tikal. Take food, water and sleeping gear with you (a hammock or sleeping mat and mosquito net should be adequate).
The Visitor's Centre hosts a number of souvenir shops, selling T-shirts, assorted local handicrafts, snacks, drinks, and numerous guide books in English and Spanish on Tikal, the Maya, and Guatemala.
Guatemalan highland’s textiles are also sold in a small rancho near the parking area.
There are a few nice Internet terminals in the Tikal Inn restaurant but they charge a hefty US$1 for 5 minutes.
Note that there is no ATM in the Visitor Centre nor at the hotels.
The Visitor's Center offers food and drink during park opening hours but is rather expensive. The Jungle Lodge offers dinners, and some travellers report that it is better than the Tikal Inn. There are several comedores (food stalls) on the road leading from the ruins entrance to Flores.
The Jaguar Inn is cheaper than the visitors centre and a little more expensive than Tikal Comedor, they used to have high quality local meals, but now they have been removed from their menu, meals now are very average and service is really slow. That being said don´t buy bus tickets there, they charge GTQ500 for a ticket to Uaxactun whereas if you buy it from the ticket booth they charge GTQ25 (USD3.50) for park entry and GTQ15 (USD2) for the bus.
There are all sorts of drinks (cans and bottles of soda, juice, and water) available at kiosks in the visitor centre reasonably priced considering that they could charge much more (a cold 600mL bottle of Coke was GTQ6, only GTQ1 more than paid in town). A 1.5 litre bottle of water from the Jaguar Inn costs GTQ10 (May 2008). If you're buying orange juice at the Jaguar Inn buy the bottled stuff (GTQ6 - Jugo De La Granja), I´m sure it is the same as the stuff in a glass but half the price.
Around the Grand Plaza small covered shops offer water. These close pretty early so plan ahead and carry some extra water in the afternoon.
Many people prefer to stay in the park and wake up with the jungle to the sounds of birds and nature rather than the rickshaws of Flores, and staying there is one of the best ways to be in the park for sunrise. Unfortunately the park options are not the cheapest, and demand often exceeds supply. Many stay in Flores and take an early shuttle bus to the park or arrange with San Juan Agency for an 03:00 pickup from hotels and hostels in Flores island to arrive before the sunrise. There are also several cheap lodges lakeside in El Remate, where your hotel can arrange a shuttle pick up for you.
Three hotels located next to the park entrance provide decent but basic accommodation. All three cater to Western travellers and their amenities and prices reflect this. For those on a shoestring, try asking if you can rent a hammock, or just a spot to hang your own, under a palapa roof.
For the budget traveller there is a camp site (GTQ50 per person or per site, not sure which). They have tents you can rent if you didn't bring your own Q50. At the Jaguar Inn, you can get into the jungle mood by renting hammocks (with a mosquito net, access to showers and toilets), or a place to hang your own. Sleeping in a hammock is a surprisingly comfortable way to sleep. Many of the locals do it.
If you need your bags kept securely there is an additional GTQ5 (USD0.80) fee. There are a lot of insects that bite, mosquitoes aren´t that bad during the dryer months but there are other nasty insects about. Keep the fly wire screen on your tent zipped tight and get in and out of your tent as quickly as possible. A can of bug spray would be very helpful. There are a lot of bees on the lawn in the camp area so wear something on your feet.
If you want to carry on to Uaxactun there are places to stay there as well. Just be sure to catch the bus in time.
The park is reasonably safe, but robberies (and worse) have happened in the not too distant past, and you should keep aware of your surroundings. Definitely best to travel in groups along some of the more remote trails, especially to Templo VI.
Be especially careful with the bus rides from Flores to Tikal, as there have been a recent rash of robberies on the main highway. Only take a bus that leaves on the hour and is on time. A bus that leaves Flores late will not have the security of police protection that an on-time bus will have. Either way, do not carry more money than you will need at Tikal.
If you are heading to Belize from Tikal, you have few options. To leave directly from Tikal, you'll have to hire a cab all the way to the border, which can be pricey. You can return to Flores by bus and stay the night before moving east. Or you can take the bus heading to Flores, get off in Ixlu, walk across the intersection and wait for a bus heading to Melchor. Some tour companies have collectivos that go from El Remate or to the border, but you will have to ask around.